AUSTERLITZ, N.Y. -- "Poetry on the page is one thing, but poetry in the ear is quite another," said Peter Bergman, as he reminisced about his elementary school days and the first poem he was given to memorize as a boy of 8.
Bergman is the executive director of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, which holds court at Steepletop, Millay's former estate. It is fitting that Bergman, who was first introduced to the poet in those early grammar school years, is one of her greatest champions. And even some 60 years after Millay's death in 1950, Bergman hopes that word of her genius will get out to inform this next generation.
On Sunday, the Millay Society will host its first annual Millay-a-thon, a read-aloud event where poets, Millay fans, passersby and even the introverted are invited to step up to the mic and let the lyricism of a master echo through the gardens. Bergman will lead at 11 a.m.
"Her work is so glorious to hear, and she often did readings," Bergman said. "There's this amazing thing that happens with her work; Every generation will discover her. They think that what she has written is written for them. There is a brilliant clarity [to it] and understanding of the human ethos."
Born in Rockland, Maine in 1892, Millay rose to literary and cultural prominence during the Jazz Age, giving voice to the Lost Generation of the post-WWI era. Her famous poem "Renascence" was published when she was just 19.
Through the use of many traditional forms including the sonnet, Millay wrote of love, of the great wash of grief that is the aftermath of war, of the common struggle to keep going. Her work varies in length, some carrying the weight of hundreds of lines and still others brief and to the point.
Reading between these lines and melding the lyricism with the poet's own life has been a longtime and arduous pursuit for Holly Peppe, literary executor of Millay's work and founding member of the society. For decades, Peppe, who has written several introductions and essays for Millay anthologies, has been a willing student and keeper of the flame for Millay's legacy. She said that unlike Millay's modernist peers, Millay wrote her poems to reach readers of all walks.
"She gave hope to a generation of youth in the 1920s. She was seemingly easy to read; her poetry is so musical," Peppe said. "But she was not considered a major American literary figure. She was labeled as a non-modernist poet, unlike the Ezra Pounds and the T.S. Eliots whose imagery is purposely veiled. Yet she wrote about social discrimination and political injustice and even women's sexuality. She was a spokesperson for personal freedom. And for women. No one had written about women.
Arguably, Millay took much from her own life and weaved these events -- predominantly images and emotions -- into her poetic works.
She was, according to Peppe, in an open marriage with Eugen Boissevain (a Dutch businessman who was the widower of feminist Inez Milholland), and took a lover from time to time while her husband managed her literary career.
Her career, as time passes, only continues to grow and stretch beyond the boundaries of scholarship and into the collective culture once again.
"She's like the best kept secret of America," Peppe said. "Hundreds of songwriters have put her words to music. She's so readable and her use of language ... it's beautiful to be able to hear the layers of her work."
Peppe hopes that Millay, like Edith Wharton, will get her ‘big break,' not only with increasing sales of anthologies and biographies (and out loud readings) but also in Hollywood.
"There is a script circulating about Millay's life, and we're certainly hoping that will be picked up," she said. "It's such a great story: war, romance, a doting husband, affairs, political protest. People are ready for her."
If you go ...
What: First Steepletop ‘Millay-a-thon,'
When: Starting at 11 a.m., Sunday
Where: 436 East Hill Road, Austerlitz N.Y.
Admission: Visitors may read as well (for a small donation). Listening is Free.